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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 8 May 2021

Fresh perspective keeping Billy Burns on upward curve with Ulster

Ulster’s 10 is playing a huge role in the province’s form under Dan McFarland.

ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER cross-field kick try for Billy Burns.

The Ulster fly-half has four try-assists in just six games for the province this season, three of which have been directly off cross-field kicks. And it would have been five on Saturday against Harlequins had Stuart McCloskey been able to score himself rather than brilliantly offloading for Sean Reidy to finish.

We’ve long known the diagonal ball from Burns has been one of his most dangerous weapons, yet his ability to pull it off to such precision means teams still struggle to counteract it, as Quins found to their detriment on Saturday.

With penalty advantage off turnover ball, Burns dropped the ball perfectly into the hands of McCloskey, who had the vision and ability to get his hands free and fling the ball inside to the supporting Reidy, who cantered over for the score which, at the time, drew the sides level.

“I didn’t actually realise we were under penalty advantage at the weekend, but it always helps when you have that to fall back on, takes a bit of the pressure off,” laughed the Ulster playmaker.

“(The cross-field kick) is definitely a tactic that we enjoy using. Bill Johnston did it the week before against the Scarlets and it proved to be the unlocking of them as well, so hopefully there’ll be a few more opportunities for us to use it going forward.

When you’re playing with quick ball and you’ve got big ball carriers carrying the ball hard, it’s very hard for a team to be worrying about a kick when the threat is in front of them in the form of a carry.

“Teams will start to read it, and there are teams this season already who have read it really well. But there’s a time and place for it in the game, for sure.”

Not to pigeon-hole Burns as a one-trick pony.  The former Gloucester star has grown considerably in his second season in Belfast now that’s he’s found his feet and is putting forth a legitimate, yet understated, claim for a call-up to Andy Farrell’s first Ireland camp in a couple of weeks.

john-cooney-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-with-louis-ludik-and-billy-burns Burns celebrates with Cooney and Ludik, Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While John Cooney draws deserved plaudits for his game-winning heroics and try-scoring antics, his half-back partner has been quietly impressive, showing a greater willingness to take the ball to the line and be the focal point of Ulster’s attack.

Burns insists he is not thinking about the potential of pulling on a green jersey right now. It had been one of his main ambitions when he agreed to join Ulster just over a year ago, but personal circumstances have seen his priorities shift considerably.

“I had a few things happen over the summer away from rugby that has just made me realise how lucky I am to be in the situation I am,” explains the 25-year-old. “I have come into this season with a real clear mindset of trying to improve as much as I can and having fun in doing that as well.

“I am having so much fun here at the minute playing, and if I focus on playing well here and getting results then maybe that will come further down the line, but I know there is plenty that I still need to work on to get to that position.”

The stand-off has also credited the impact of having a full pre-season with head coach Dan McFarland as a big reason for his upturn in form this season, which has seen him transition into one of the first names on the team sheet every week.

“I think it can be forgotten that Dan came in with no pre-season last year and as he came in we were sort of working through the season with him and how Dan envisages the team playing,” continues Burns, who has already agreed to extend his stay in Belfast until 2021.

“This year we had the luxury of having him for a long period of time, along with the other coaches, and I think that has helped me massively being in a position of fly-half where you are running the team. I’m sure it has helped me.

billy-burns-celebrates-after-the-game Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“But I think it’s also due to coming in with a fresh mindset. I want to try and enjoy every day, I want to try and push myself to be as good as I can be. At the moment I’m just enjoying being out there on the pitch, I’m loving training and getting out here on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, whenever it is just enjoying it and hopefully I can keep continuing my form.

“I’ve been relatively happy with how I’ve been playing but I still know there’s room for improvement.”

That applies to Ulster at the moment too. As a team, although they have racked up eight wins from their opening ten games, there is an awareness within the squad that they haven’t reached the lofty standards they have set themselves, and head coach Dan McFarland quite surprisingly described his side as being outside the top-eight in Europe.

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His comments could be construed as him trying to inject some life into his side after they needed a last-gasp Cooney penalty to see off Harlequins last weekend, even though they sit top of Pool Three in the Heineken Champions Cup, as well as second in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14.

Their opportunity to have that bounce-back performance comes against the same opponents at the Twickenham Stoop tonight (kick-off 19.45, BT Sport) as they aim to make it nine wins from 11, although Burns acknowledges there’s no room for error against a side that pushed them right to their limits last weekend.

billy-burns-ahead-of-the-game Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“We know there’ll definitely have to be a big improvement on our performance from the weekend. Although we got the result, there were parts of our performance that we weren’t happy with, and if we want to go there and not only compete but come away with four or five points then we’re going to have to improve,” concurs the fly-half.

“Coming in (on Monday for video review) was a weird one because we felt like we could have had that game done a little bit earlier. There were parts of our game where we weren’t ruthless enough in our attack. We created a lot of good try scoring opportunities but we didn’t take them, and then defensively we picked and chose our moments, and that’s not us, we’re normally a team that likes to smother other teams’ attacks.

“But I think that shows the growth in us. We’ve got a good result at home in the Champions Cup but we’re not happy with how we performed. As well as that, there’s 40-odd blokes in there – I know only 23 played – who were in that meeting and every single one of us knows that if we want to get a result we’re going to have to improve, not massively, but largely in several areas.

“It’s a great opportunity for us, a great challenge, but we’re looking forward to going over there and giving it a good shot.”


15. Ross Chisholm
14. Vereniki Goneva
13. James Lang
12. Francis Saili
11. Cadan Murley
10. Brett Herron
9. Martin Landajo

1. Santiago Garcia Botta
2. Elia Elia
3. Kyle Sinckler (captain)
4. Stephan Lewies 
5. Tevita Cavubati
6. Will Evans 
7. Semi Kunatani 
8. Alex Dombrandt


16. Jack Musk 
17. Nick Auterac 
18. Simon Kerrod
19. Dino Lamb 
20. James Chisholm
21. Niall Saunders 
22. Paul Lasike
23. Travis Ismaiel


15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Matt Faddes
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Louis Ludik
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rob Herring
3. Marty Moore
4. Kieran Treadwell
5. Iain Henderson (captain)
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee


16. Adam McBurney
17. Andrew Warwick
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Matthew Rea
21. David Shanahan
22. Bill Johnston
23. Craig Gilroy

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz [France].

Bernard Jackman joined Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell in studio to chat about the remarkable John Cooney and the Ireland captaincy. 

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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